2018 Word of the Year: Elegance

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In 2018, my focus is elegance.

What do I mean by elegance? Will I spend the year in pearls and large sunglasses, lunching in fern-laden bowers whilst not perspiring? I certainly hope so. However, I primarily chose the word for its design angle.

The creative designers and developers I work with often describe concepts, code, and tools in terms of elegance–meaning the simplest, most effective answer to a problem or requirement.

Elegance encompasses attitudes and frameworks that are graceful, imaginative, and intelligent.

An elegant solution is “pleasingly ingenious” and “well-suited to its purpose.”

This is the mindset I want to cultivate this year. I do not expect that my family, work, or circumstances will become less intense or demanding (I put this blackout poem by Austin Kleon on my inspiration wall) but my attitudes can shift towards elegance. I can look for the simple, effective processes that free me up to be more effective. I can respond graciously. When it comes to problems and sticking points, I can be resourceful and astute. And hopefully I can learn to be pleasingly ingenious, rather than annoyingly so.

In the technical sense, elegance is not a once-and-done state, it’s an iterative process. And that’s true of people, too. It doesn’t matter if I was cut out for the work at hand. I’m becoming well-suited for my purpose.

I’ve been choosing a word of the year since 2011. Things never turn out as I expect, but I can look back on these themes and see how I have learned and grown in interesting ways through the exercise.

My word for 2018 is elegance. What’s yours?

 

Wrapping Up 2017; Setting Up for 2018

IMG_7169I love the week between Christmas and New Years Day, as we usually have a little more time for reflection and taking stock. I have been going through my notebooks and Think File to fill out my PowerSheets and make good goals for next year, and I’m getting excited to see what 2018 holds.

I stopped counting how many books I read every year, because it’s always somewhere between 130-170 and who really cares? What most people are interested in is which ones I liked best. So here are my top ten for 2017, in reverse chronological order, because that’s how I sorted on GoodReads:

High Performance Habits – I haven’t reviewed this one yet, because I just finished it, but I’m already implementing a lot of what I learned. This book uses actual research to uncover the habits that high performers in all walks of life–from CEOs to students to stay-at-home parents–have in common. Some of the results are surprising.

Acts for Everyone – This two-part book comprises a lot of theology about the book of Acts in small, easily digestible chunks. Wright’s style is engaging and his insights into the historical setting are amazing. I have read Acts a bunch of times before, but I learned so much from this book.

Lab Girl – This book came out of nowhere and surprised me with its depth and fascinating content. If you’re a memoir reader, definitely make time for this one.

The Knight’s Fee – Rosemary Sutcliff is a perennial favorite, and this book set in England at the time of the Norman Conquest made a terrific read aloud.

Eifelheim – Kind of weird and definitely genre-bending, this novel combined terrific historical fiction with physics and sci-fi. Sounds like a problem, but trust me, this was a fantastic book.

The Shadow Land – Thank you, Elizabeth Kostova, for continuing to turn out incredible novels set in Eastern Europe. Travel there is currently beyond my budget, but thankfully I can keep reading. All of Kostova’s novels are exquisite mysteries combined with terrific settings and just a hint of folktale.

Mere Motherhood – If you’re a mother, you might need to read this one for inspiration and encouragement. I can’t promise you won’t cry.

Matterhorn – This difficult but engrossing novel tracks a company of young men–mostly kids–during a short window of the Vietnam War. I feel like more people need to read this book to get a feel for the impact of modern war, and to have compassion for veterans.

When Breath Becomes Air – This extremely poignant memoir underscores the value of a deep liberal arts education for everyone–even surgeons–because truth and beauty are important in any life path.

Deep Work – I didn’t immediately call it as a top read, but Deep Work stuck with me, and I found myself referring back to Newport’s ideas and frameworks throughout the year–making valuable changes to how I work and also how I weigh opportunities.

This is also the time of year when a lot of good time management and goal setting and getting organized type stuff comes out. In case you’re also a fan of these resources, here are a few you might find interesting:

  • I’m signed up for this habits workshop. I always get a lot out of products from Simplified Organization, and the focus on distilling habit and planning wisdom into applications for moms and women juggling multiple roles is invaluable.
  • This is a FREE meal planning boot camp. I find that planning meals–at least in a loose fashion–really helps clear up my mental space.
  • I got a Motiv ring for my birthday and it FAR outstrips other fitness trackers. It’s unobtrusive, waterproof, holds a charge for three days, counts accurately, and tracks steps, heart rate, active minutes, and sleep. I find this far superior than just tracking steps. The heart rate targets help me figure out what I’m really getting done, and the sleep tracking shows me interesting trends so I can make better choices. If you’re interested, this link will take $20 off the price (that’s a good deal).

How are you spending the last week of 2017? What are you looking forward to in the new year?

 

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The Wrap-Up Chapter

A friend of mine told me that she thinks of turning 40 as beginning a new book. Although she was thinking of the idea as a life comprised of two books, to me this seems like a good way to think about decades–books in a series that make up a life. A series may have common characters, but each volume has different themes, plot twists, and crisis moments. Much like a decade, don’t you think?

IMG_7211This week I turned 39, which opens the final chapter of the book of my 30s. In final chapters, writers close loops, wrap up long-standing conflicts, and underscore themes. And in a series, the end of a book also sets up the next installment. All of those descriptions feel appropriate as I plan for 2018.

My 30s have been full of adventures in finding out who I am, exploring what I want to do professionally, figuring out homeschooling (and how to balance that with work), and building a family. I’ve enjoyed tremendous blessings and suffered significant setbacks, and grown through them all. My outlook is broader. My thinking is deeper.

I’m fascinated by how this drawing down and ramping up are taking shape. After nearly 13 years pregnant and/or breastfeeding, soon I will have more flexibility for travel, more ability to attend work-related events and conferences, and even the chance at more date nights. I’m finally processing some of my health issues and putting common sense plans into place for dealing with them long-term. We’re moving into whole new worlds of independence with the big kids that already have a big impact on how we do school. And all of that opens my mental space up to consider new angles for my work.

IMG_7212In the past couple of years, I’ve been surprised at my need to mourn the end of some 30s themes. It was harder than I expected to finish the baby stage, and simultaneously figure out how to handle pre-teens (I still have not figured this out–good thing I have a year left!). And yet I find that I’m newly energized to tackle age 39. It helps that I think middle age starts at 50, but the prospect of my 40s isn’t phasing me for now. Some things are winding down, but I can see all of these new possibilities opening up, and it will be exciting to see what new themes and challenges are in store.

When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.

I had that Tuli Kupferberg quote on my wall in college. I still have no idea who Tuli is, but the quote still seems apt. So here’s to the winding down and opening up–the denoument of a decade and the foundation of the next!

Do you see your decades as books? If you’re just beginning or ending one, are different themes opening up?

 

Making it up as we go

IMG_7057Margaret turned two last week. I spent a long time working on her cake, because it was the last time I would ever make a two-year-old birthday cake for one of my children.

Perhaps as a weird consequence of the dramatic events of Margaret’s birth, which included a lot of life changes that I didn’t get a chance to think through and prepare for, I have a habit of rolling events like this around, taking hyper-notice, really marveling at every detail. You just don’t know when it will be your last chance.

But as it turned out, this was not the last time I made a cake for a two-year-old after all. Actually that moment happened when I wasn’t noticing, back when Eliza turned two. Instead of being my last hurrah, Margaret’s bunny cake met with a cataclysmic tragedy and ended up as a sad mess of over-rolled fondant and broken cake pieces in the trash can.

As I drove to the grocery store to get an overpriced, under-decorated facsimile, annoyed and frustrated, I catalogued all of the things I could have been doing other than spending hours making a cake that didn’t even turn out: doing client work, writing a blog newsletter, sorting the five bags of whatnot in my closet that I really need to take to Goodwill…

You see, in this fifth time through having a two-year-old, I have the unique (for me) circumstance of having a life and schedule that do not work, even on paper. Usually, by the time the baby is two, the wheels are back on and I’ve MacGuyvered a way to fit everything all in. This time? Nope. I’ve tried. I’ve tracked my time. I’ve made schedules and ideal day lists and cut and cut and cut, but no. The stuff I want to do does not all fit at once.

So there’s never a “typical” week. I surge in one area, then another. One week, you’d think I’m working too much. Another, that I’m a slave to my homeschool. You might think I never exercise, or that I exercise so much I ought to be in the Olympics by now. Sometimes I’m learning French. Sometimes I’m barely writing in English. There are even weeks when I’m getting enough sleep (“Really?” my husband asks, “When are those weeks?”)

I’ll own it: this is not balance. Everyone has advice. I don’t fit into any box, but surely I could fit in a box if I would just focus on my business and work more. Or stop working entirely and write a novel instead. Or whatever. I get it from books, too. Jay Papasan would say that going off in so many different directions is a recipe for not achieving anything.

But I am coming around to being at peace with this too-much-but-not-enough life. The fact is, I’m not ok with clearing the decks of all but One Thing. I don’t match up with any given single role, but maybe that’s not a problem. Maybe that’s  a sign that I really am in the right lane. It’s not the same lane anyone else is in, and it’s not really a position from which I can come up with a bunch of universally applicable top-ten-ways-to-rock-it articles. But this is my calling, and I’m living my life, not someone else’s.

I like how Hope Jahren puts this, in her unexpectedly excellent and thoroughly fascinating literary/science memoir, Lab GirlI’ve never been personally interested in paleo-botany, but I love reading about other people who are passionate about their work, and who so clearly love their unusual and one-of-a-kind lives. I highly recommend the book in its entirety, but this part resonated with me, particularly.

I have been told that I am intelligent, and I have been told that I am simple-minded. I have been told that I am trying to do too much, and I have been told that what I have done amounts to very little…I have been admonished for being too feminine and I have been distrusted for being too masculine. I have been warned that I am far too sensitive and I have been accused of being heartlessly callous. But I was told all of these things by people who can’t understand the present or see the future any better than I can. Such recurrent pronouncements have forced me to accept that because I am a female scientist, nobody knows what the hell I am, and it has given me the delicious freedom to make it up as I go along.

I spent too much of my 20s and 30s worrying whether I was living up to everyone’s expectations and all the right cultural dictates, if I was making good on my education, if I was on the right path.

IMG_7062Now, miraculously enough, I have this fifth go-round with a two-year-old, and I’m just making it up as I go along. Work piles up, my kids can’t read Greek, and I sometimes buy the cheap soft bread at the store instead of the sprouted kind. But I take these one-off moments and savor them. I obey the toddler lisp to “Sing a SONG!” and stop to listen when the preschooler pleads, “And also, Mama, and ALSO…” I hug the moody pre-teens and tell them cautionary tales, and I am pleasantly surprised every day when my husband arrives home safe and sound. And yes, I also turn the kids over to the babysitter and write websites and marketing strategies. I go to writer’s group or book club. And sometimes I sit on the couch with a book while the melee careens all around me.

It’s all too much, it’s never enough, and it’s no one’s idea of a good time but mine. We have a two-year-old again, and for the last time ever. It’s a rainy day, there is oatmeal in Eliza’s hair, and the big kids are running around like headless chickens, having forgotten to do their theory assignments for piano lessons. I look at this never-to-be-repeated moment and notice each detail, and I say with the PsalmistThe Lord has done this; it is marvelous in my eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.

Happy birthday, Margaret. I’m sorry about how the cake turned out, but you were worth the effort!

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Memorable Mottos and Words of the Year

img_6455As I read, I often latch on to a phrase that sticks with me and comes to stand for a trait, habit, or aspiration that I want to remember. I keep these in little notes on my desk and taped to my mirror and on the wall in my office. Last year, I tied my goals to them.

Some people call these mottos (Mystie has good ones for her kids, and Heather has beautifully calligraphed selections for her family), others call them rules to live by (such as Gretchen Rubin’s Personal Commandments). I suppose mine are a little of both. And, yeah, mine are a little weirder than what the links include, but at least they are memorable.

This year, I again tied my goals to my mottos (different goals, but in the same categories of aspiration) and I also selected one for my phrase of the year. Thanks to the idea from Mystie and Heather (links above) I am also applying the mottos to my kids, and plan to develop kid-type applications for all of the mottos over the course of the year.

Love is the horse.

You may recognize this year’s motto from the weekly newsletter–it’s taken from a quote by George Vaillant: “But who could have foreseen…that he would die a happy, giving, and beloved man? Only those who understand that happiness is only the cart; love is the horse.”

My natural bent is to prioritize efficiency and productivity. This, I’ve slowly and painfully come to realize, makes relationships…a challenge. But since a fair part of my life’s work is parenting and educating five children, I need to find ways to work to my strengths AND grow in my weaknesses.

When I read the Vaillant quote this fall in The Sweet Spot, I started seeing all of the ways that I push on problems to solve them with speed and efficiency rather than pausing to apply love and grace.  And often my way winds up exacerbating the issue or making it take even longer to solve. What if, I asked myself, love is the horse that could pull all of these things forward better than I can push them?

I need to learn this now. My kids do, too. Whatever seems important in the moment–getting something done, getting out the door, solving a dispute, cleaning up a mess–an attitude of love will probably get better results than a hasty, sharp hustle. And by “probably” I think I mean “definitely.” When I’m 80, my relationships will matter. Whether or not we got to the Post Office before it closed will not.

In case you wondered, here are my other mottos. Bonus points if you can remember the book each one came from!

  • Love is the horse.
  • Be the Band-Aid.
  • Ride Icelandic ponies.
  • Throw candy.
  • Don’t hug the cactus.
  • Fence the table (for the kids, who are Wingfeather fans, this one became, “Fence the Spookies.” Ask Sarah for her rendition. It’s priceless.)
  • Light a candle.
  • Bring your basket.
  • Sharpen the sword.

Do you do mottos or words of the year? What did you choose for 2017?

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“Ride Icelandic ponies”

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I love this quote from Brigid Schulte’s great book Overwhelmed. I have it on my desk as a reminder to be present in the moment. Whatever I’m doing, I should really DO that thing. If I’m riding Icelandic ponies, I should RIDE ICELANDIC PONIES and let the rest go.

You can read more about Overwhelmed in my longer review from last summer.

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On reading with my grandmother

IMG_5928I’m trying to recall the first book my grandmother offered to discuss with me. It may have been The Little Colonel, or it might have been Freckles. I’m almost certain Christy came later, but the order doesn’t really matter. In any case, she would sometimes recommend a book to me, and tell me we could talk about it once I was done.

I don’t remember the details of the initial conversations, but we did continue to trade books off and on when I would visit. Once I got to be an adult, I would mail Grandmama a copy of a book once or twice a year, and she would send letters suggesting other titles I might like. I still remember the phone call when we discussed The Help. We talked for nearly two hours about the maids that had had an impact on her life in one way or another.

IMG_5929That was about the time Alzheimer’s was taking hold of Grandmama and walking her away from us slowly so I hardly realized it. We discussed a couple of other books after that, but soon it seemed she wasn’t really able to read anymore, or not all the way through a book.

It was harder to talk on visits, once we didn’t have shared reading. And once she stopped always knowing who I was exactly. At my cousin’s wedding two years ago she saw me and said, “Now, who are you?” My aunt reminded her that I’m Little Catherine. I’m always Little Catherine in family gatherings, no matter how old I get.

My grandmother looked at me and smiled so brightly at that, and said, “Well, you turned out beautifully!” Like it was such a happy surprise to see me all polished up.

IMG_5980On the last good visit we had, about a year ago, we looked at photo albums together. She didn’t know who I was, but she remembered stories from the pictures. It was so sweet to see pictures of her when she was young and happy. And to read notes from her friends during World War II when they were so brave and idealistic and certain that their friends and brothers were dying for a great cause.

We bring all of that to what we read, you know? Who we are and where we’re from and what shaped us. I wish that I had really known my grandmother as an adult, before she got sick. I’d love to talk to her about what it was like to have four daughters and one son back then (the same family mix I have now), or how her life changed her perspectives on what she read. In my memory she’s a pretty complex person–fun and vivacious but also a person of…shall we say…strong will. There are pros and cons to that inheritance.

IMG_5925Even though I didn’t get to be friends with her as an adult–maybe that’s never how generational ties work–I’m so glad that we read books together. I wish we had done that more. A big reason I keep writing book reviews is in hopes that my kids (and maybe grandchildren, down the line!) will someday know me a little better, or have some insight into who I am as a person, not just as Mama.

My grandmother died this week, at 93 years old. Even though I feel like I’ve already been missing her for years now, it’s still hard to know I won’t see her again when I drive through the mountains.

So I think I will go home and pile the kids on the couch and introduce them to some of those old favorite books. And I will tell them how I read those stories with my grandmother, who was complicated, but pretty wonderful.

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The Bookmarked Life #15

2The Bookmarked Life is my take on catch-all posts–a record to help me remember this season of life.

Right now I’m:

…Considering

I’m thinking about seasons and rhythms and the original purpose of the liturgical calendar. How might we do Advent and Easter and our school terms differently to renew focus and reduce the way holidays tend to breed frenzy? I like the idea of longer seasons and a contemplative approach to the year. We have to be careful not to get caught up in meaningless rituals, but in our milieu I think maybe there is more danger in meaningless seasons if you hew to the culture than if you follow some version of a church calendar. This is tied up in more thinking and reading about liturgy and habits and may wind up shifting how I schedule the next school year.

…Furnishing My Mind

IMG_5642Margaret was baptized in early May and we celebrated by having a picture that actually included all of us. It turns out that it’s really, really difficult to squeeze a family of seven onto a loveseat.

Related to the loveseat: people often ask why on earth I have white couches when I have so many kids. The truth is, these couches were super cheap at Ikea and the slipcovers are fully removable and washable. They hold up really well–I did not stain treat them and I only wash them 2-3 times a year, sometimes tossing the seat cushions in more frequently. We use the couches all day long and they do sometimes get a little grubby, but nothing a soak in Oxiclean can’t fix. IMG_5558Overall, I feel like they make me happy and are much easier to maintain than a couch you can’t wash.

My parents came to visit for the week of Eliza’s third birthday and Margaret’s baptism, and we had a nice visit as well as a mini-break from school.

IMG_5791Jack turned nine at the end of May and had a “Lego Inventor” party. It was a madhouse but he seemed to enjoy it. He made the cake topper himself, and it was nice to just go with it and not try to do some fantastical thing with fondant. Chocolate cake with lots of chocolate frosting (the Hershey’s recipe is easy and way, way better than any store-bought version) is good regardless.

Jack is very creative, loves to read, and is super intense about everything he does. Parenting him can be a wild ride, but he’s interesting and fun and very affectionate.

 

…Living the Good Life

IMG_5671We joined the Children’s Museum and Zoo this spring and have enjoyed frequent trips to both as I attempt to justify the cost with lower cost-per-visit averages.  🙂 So far we’ve done the museum nine times and the zoo five times. As you can see in the picture, the zoo has a cool exhibit going right now of giant animal sculptures made of Legos.

For some reason it often feels easier to take the five kids out than to stay home. It sort of diffuses the noise and energy! We’ve also been going to more parks and finding interesting new parts of the city to explore (that is a nice way of saying, “Mama often gets lost but then enjoys the scenery.”)

…Teaching

We finished our required 180 days of instruction last week, but don’t tell the kids since we will still be doing school through the rest of June (after a break this week for VBS). It works better for us to take July off and then have more flexibilty throughout the year for term breaks rather than having one long summer break. To the surprise of no one, I have changed some things up this semester, so I’ll do an end-of-year wrap-up later in June.

…Boosting Creativity

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I think it’s so great to be creative in different ways.  Somehow being creative in a totally different medium can help with creativity in my usual tracks.  A couple of times lately a friend of mine has hosted a painting party–a local artist comes to her house and we all learn some techniques and paint a small picture. This one is a sprig of balsam fir.  I really like the way the colors in the background turned out.

When I was reading The Irrational Season, I was struck by Madeleine L’Engle’s schedule–she always made time for a walk outdoors, an hour of study and reading, and an hour of practicing piano in addition to writing and caring for her family and whatever else. She felt that the outdoor exercise, study, and piano were part of her creative process, and she was unabashed at saying that was what she needed for her creative life. I was inspired to pick up some of my old piano music and have been tackling Mozart’s Fantasy in D Minor.

…Building Fitness

IMG_5771 We are boldly embarking on hikes! I don’t know what it is about having five children that has made me delve into all of the things there are to do around town. Obviously it’s TONS easier to tote five kids to attractions, right? But in any case we have now met up with a friend and her two kids to do two hikes at state parks nearby. Surprisingly, Eliza (age 3) has been able to walk pretty far. And Margaret does well in the baby carrier. The big kids got these nifty water bottle holders (the friends we hike with introduced us–they are far more outdoorsy than we are!) and are allowed to eat granola bars whilst hiking, so they are all in.

I moved my regular workouts to the evening after the kids go to bed, and am now mostly doing my own circuit of heavy (for me anyway!) weights. I got this idea from Crystal, which led me to this free e-book (salesy, but informative), and so far it’s a nice break from routine.

…Seeking Balance

Work (the paid sort anyway) has been lighter this past couple of weeks, and that has been good in its way. It’s funny how the older kids, while not requiring the same hands-on vigilance as the littles, seem to be in phases that require more time and emotional energy right now, so it has been good to slow down and be able to focus on those needs lately. I’ve been doing more personal writing too, which is restorative and fun. I still have no idea how to work the schedule to include paid work, personal writing, study time, school, and intentional parenting all together. But if I look at things from a weekly or monthly perspective, it does all fit in.

…Listening To

The kids and I are listening to The Chronicles of Narnia books on audio (unabridged, not dramatized) in the car–what a great series to listen to one after the other! This is perfect for summer car trips or just for going around town. Highly recommended!

…Keeping In Mind

“May you treasure wisely this jeweled, gilded time, and cherish each day as an extra grace.” –Andrew Greeley

What are you bookmarking this week?

 

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A birthday tea party

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Me: What will you have for your birthday cake this year, Eliza?

Eliza: A purple cake! With purple teacups and purple flowers on them!

Me: So will it be a tea party?

Eliza: No, it will be an EATING PARTY!DSC_0229

Eliza turned three yesterday so we went all out with a party featuring tea AND eating.  🙂 We had homemade scones, cookies, vegetables, fruit, cucumber sandwiches, and cake. Plus tea with lots of cream and sugar. And purple tulips in a teapot.

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This year has been one of re-examining life and not just saying “these are my priorities” while doing lots of other things too. I am not perfect at this, or even close to it. But when I think about Eliza’s birthday tea, I’m glad I’ve cut things–even neutral or good things–to give me enough margin for just living real life together. I’m reading some good things about this lately–home atmosphere and prioritizing relationships and making room for what’s important and the philosophy of making wise choices. I’m also getting inspiration for living deliberately and authentically from Upstream Field Guide (forget the rest, I literally bought this just for the UFG).DSC_0234Eliza at three is very funny, determined, and conscientious. She dances wildly, loves books, and thinks she can write her name in cursive (sorry, people who collect the attendance sheets at church each week–those are her long lines of scrolly “e”s).

Eliza: Once I was a baby, but now I’m Eliza.

Me: So we can’t call you “Babe-ums” anymore?

Eliza: Mogget [Margaret] is a tiny Babe-ums. I’m a big Babe-ums. Because I’m a big girl. I’m THREE.

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We love you, Eliza!  I hope your third year is full of big smiles and great books and lots and lots of tea parties.

 

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